The preservationists & the provokers

Brown shares a storied history with the Providence Preservation Society — sometimes in opposition, often in collaboration

By and
Senior Staff Writers
Friday, May 25, 2018
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2018

Six buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places stand on a plot of land along the Walk — the path between Olive and Angell St. connecting Pembroke to main campus. They have stood there nearly 150 years, since 1870.

But in 2017, the University proposed its state-of-the-art performing arts center should be constructed where those buildings stand. Four of them, including the beloved Urban Environmental Lab, were slated to be demolished with a fifth to be relocated.

The decision was met with a wave of opposition from the Brown community. Students and faculty launched a movement to save the UEL in spring 2017. Led by Lauren Maunus ’19 and Jon Gewirtzman ’17, students circulated petitions, created a page for testimonials and wrote letters to the president. Bikes at Brown, a club in the UEL that would have been displaced,  held shop hours in performing arts spaces in protest. Mock “for sale” signs appeared on exterior walls of the UEL. 

Students were not the only ones opposed to the University’s intention to demolish the UEL and other threatened buildings. Alongside other community members, Emma Illick-Frank ’18 and Austen Sharpe ‘18 both testified at a City Plan Commission hearing on Dec. 19. There, they met Providence Preservation Society Executive Director Brent Runyon.

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Wriston Quad under construction.

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Benevolent Street looking to Thayer toward the west. On right is the Brown Dear Shop. On the left is the Brown Jug.

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West side of Thayer Street looking south.

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Northwest corner of Thayer and Charlesfield streets showing the Thayer Street school. To the left is the Downing House.

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Home on Benevolent Street being demolished for the construction of Wriston Quad.

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Back of the Thayer Street School looking toward Charlesfield Street. House in the center is Downing House.

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South side of Benevolent Street looking toward the West.

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North side of Benevolent Street near Thayer and looking west. The light building to the left is where the Art Department is housed.

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"Northeast corner of Benevolent and Brown showing section of T. I. Hare Powel House."

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From December through the early months of 2018, the students kept in close contact with Runyon. He offered context and advice on which zoning codes to reference in an op-ed defending the UEL. During the first months of advocacy, “administrators and professors” had been “quick to tell us that it was a lost cause,” she wrote to The Herald. But Runyon encouraged them to hold on even as everyone else gave up hope, Illick-Frank said. 

When the op-ed ran on Feb. 7, Illick-Frank and Sharpe met with Runyon and both Preservation Society and Brown trustee members. The Preservation Society and students had different reasons for wanting to preserve the UEL; “ours was for function, theirs more posterity,” Illick-Frank wrote.

That month, the University announced a change: The center would instead be built on a space between Angell Street and Olive Street — a smaller area facing the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts.

“This meeting, along with the op-ed, were the most important turning points in the fight to save the UEL,” Illick-Frank wrote.

“It’s my impression that (Brown) decided against demolishing these properties after they saw the outpouring of opposition that was led by the Preservation Society,” said Robert Azar, Providence deputy director of planning and development and visiting associate professor of urban studies.

The Providence Preservation Society has been organizing community members for over half a century to advocate for the preservation of Providence’s historic buildings that capture the city’s character and heritage. The organization began as a neighborhood association that met in local residents’ living rooms to plan opposition against Brown’s expansion on College Hill. Today, it receives funding from approximately 450 household members, along with about 25 corporate partners, Runyon said. These partners include construction and property companies and Rhode Island businesses, such as Alex and Ani and the Bank of Rhode Island, according to the Preservation Society ‘s website. 

The organization prioritizes advocacy throughout neighborhoods included in the National Register of Historic Places. Preservation Society members attend public meetings of city development committees, such as the City Plan Commission, and collaborate with smaller neighborhood associations and individuals, including architects, developers and owners. Besides defending properties threatened by construction projects, the Preservation Society also offers concrete advice on how to repurpose historic buildings. 

Each year, the Preservation Society also publishes a list of the city’s “Most Endangered Properties.” This year, their list included all five buildings in the path of the proposed performing arts center.

University Archives

Benevolent Street looking from Thayer toward the West. On right is Brown Bear Shop. On left is Brown Jug and then to the West, the Garage.

The outcome of this debate over the performing arts center’s site reflects the influence of historic preservation on the University’s approach to campus planning.

“The University is very preservation-minded,” said Chris Marsella, president of the Preservation Society board and a local developer. Though the relationship between Brown and the Preservation Society is “very collaborative and very collegial” today, it has been “much more contentious” in the past, said Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey ’91 MA’06. 

Even before the Preservation Society was established, the University began to take preservation into consideration under former University President Henry Wriston, who oversaw a period of dramatic expansion on College Hill. 

1n 1951, the construction of Wriston Quad, began. The University demolished 50 buildings, the majority of which were homes. But Brown decided to relocate six homes among these, said Visiting Scholar in American Studies Robert Emlen, who also served as a member of the Preservation Society’s board from 1989 to 1995 and has lived around College Hill for 30 years. 

At this point, historic preservation “was a new idea. Most cities were out there just demolishing old houses,” Emlen said. But many neighborhood homeowners recognized “how important they (were) to the health of a community,” he added. 

Brown continued to purchase properties that became available as the city’s textile industry moved south. They were “land-banking,” Emlen said — buying historic properties without specific plans to develop them. Preservationists frown on such practices.

Under Wriston’s leadership, this banked land was channeled toward a specific project driven by his wish to transform Brown into a world-class university. Rather than living in private homes off campus, Wriston imagined students would experience a residential community in on-campus dormitories. With this vision, Wriston Quad was born.

The University continued to purchase properties under former University President Barnaby Keeney for another residential quad, causing tension between the University and the preservation-minded of Providence.

“Brown had used and bought, found, scrounged, every available building site in the ’40s (to preserve) the houses on Wriston Quad, so there just wasn’t any place left to move a house to,” Emlen said.

College Hill residents John Nicholas Brown and Elizabeth Allen were not thrilled that the view of their “lovely neighborhood of little houses” would be obstructed by the brick walls of college dormitories. The two gathered a group of neighbors into their living rooms for the first meeting of the Providence Preservation Society in February 1956.

A few years later, in 1960, Antoinette Downing, an architectural historian and resident, worked with John Nicholas Brown to have the city declare College Hill a historic district. This status helped protect some of the neighborhood’s historic houses from demolition.

The University itself would become more involved with preservation in the mid-1980s when Robert Reichley, then the executive vice president of the University, served as president of the Preservation Society Board.

University Archives

Wriston Quad under construction.

For Emlen, Reichley represented the University’s conscious effort to work with the Preservation Society as it decided that collaboration would help it achieve its own goals. While Reichley wanted to build bridges as a resident by holding neighborhood meetings, he also acted strategically. By leading the committee to select the next Preservation Society director, Reichley could find someone who might continue to hold Brown in its favors.

Although there are currently no members of the University administration on the board of Preservation Society, the Brown community is not wholly separate from the preservationist movement.

For instance, “we always have Brown professors and Brown families who are involved with the Preservation Society,” Runyon said, though as individuals they “may or may not always agree with the position the (Preservation Society) takes.”

The four buildings that would have been eliminated to construct the performing arts center are all within the University’s “institutional zone” — meaning Brown has the legal right to demolish any existing structures, Azar said.

Still, the City of Providence Zoning Ordinance mandates that the University describe a “public participation process” for projects like the performing arts center in its institutional master plan, a document that outlines Brown’s long-term development goals.

During that process, Brown works “in a very close partnership” with community actors like the Providence Preservation Society, Carey said. 

“The process of engaging typically produces information that you didn’t have before,” Carey said. That information enables the University to address small concerns, like helping local businesses by changing the access point for a construction project, and consider large requests, like moving a proposed site completely, he added.

As Brown sought to expand its Wellness Center and the School of Engineering in recent years, it knocked down four buildings on Brook Street and another two on Manning Street. The Preservation Society opposed the demolition of all four houses, The Herald previously reported, but also lauded Brown’s community building efforts and acknowledged that not all buildings could be saved.

In both cases, the process for Brown to demolish the buildings “was relatively easy,” Azar added.

Though the University plans to construct a new dorm where the Brook Street houses once stood, they have paved over the space with parking for now. Of the destroyed homes, Runyon told The Herald in February, “Brown almost always gets what it wants.”

At the same time, the University has taken on projects to protect many of the historic properties that it owns. Smith-Buonanno Hall, a former gymnasium built in 1907, was renovated two decades ago and turned into an academic building. Rhode Island Hall, built in 1840 as a lecture hall, underwent extensive renovation in 2008 and 2009. Wilson Hall is currently undergoing a $24 million renovation to become Friedman Hall. 

Brown could still do more to preserve the “vibrant” neighborhood that overlaps with the University’s campus, Runyon said.

“Brown does a lot of historic preservation for buildings they have designated as important on their campus,” Runyon said. “Where I think they could do better is realizing that … retaining the character of (the neighborhood) is important, even if the buildings are owned by Brown.”

Though Runyon noted that the Preservation Society’s “relationship with Brown varies over time based on the leadership” of the Preservation Society and Brown, Marsella said the University’s “current administration has shown dedication to preservation.”

Runyon agreed. “It’s gone from very adversarial at times with no communication to … very strong communication,” Runyon said.

Though the Preservation Society cannot directly regulate the University’s actions, they have “a major impact on city public policy of establishing historic districts and regulating historic preservation,” Azar said. The organization “can justifiably take credit for the preservation of entire neighborhoods in” Providence, he added.

Despite certain intractable tensions between the University’s needs and preservationist objectives, today the Preservation Society and Brown are “partners” and “neighbors,” Marsella said.

“They have had their differences from time to time, but my impression is that they agree more often than they disagree,” Azar said. This positive relationship is bolstered by the “constant ongoing communication” between the University, Preservation Society and city officials, Carey said. 

“As the University engages in large construction projects in the College Hill area, it “has to have the goodwill of the neighbors,” Emlen said. “It can’t go around offending people.” 

“The neighbors are people like us,” he added. “They just live here, and care about Brown, and care about the neighborhood, so there’s no point in having a contentious relationship.”

In the case of the performing arts center, “I think all in all it worked out extremely well,” Carey said. The new location for the center is “a better site for the project, and it’s a better site in terms of addressing community concerns,” he added.